Brian Monteith: CBI had to choose the British side

The business group had to give an opinion at some point and its choice was the only logical one, writes Brian Monteith

CBI Scotland director Iain McMillan has always spoken out against any form of devolution or independence. Picture: Donald MacLeod

I find it difficult to rustle up any sympathy for the plight of the CBI, after it appears to have made a poor job of what should have been a relatively easy task of declaring itself in favour of Britain staying together. And yet I find myself moved to defend its decision, if not its process, which at best has lacked transparency.

My reluctance stems from youthful perceptions of the seventies when the CBI was part of the corporatist triumvirate: it was the employers’ organisation, the TUC claimed to represent the workers and the governments of the day liked to think they had a mandate from the people, although they often found it very difficult to enforce it. Even then, the CBI was a queer fish, for amongst its membership it had all the big nationalised industries – coal, rail, steel, shipbuilding and latterly car manufacture – as well as private corporations. This meant that it not only represented “bosses”, it also represented the state’s interests in regard to subsidies, meddling intervention and regulation that limited competition.

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A great deal of that undynamic statism has since gone because a certain Margaret Thatcher changed the ownership structures and competition policies of British industry. Unfortunately, this has not completely solved the CBI’s inherent problems, for amongst its members there are now many government agencies and quangos (that I would argue are often anti-business), as well as public institutions that can be charities or must maintain an apolitical ethos.

The CBI has all the look of an organisation with inner contradictions that must make it challenging to govern and for which its opinions or policy stances must, by definition, reflect either the lowest common denominator of such a disparate membership or defend a prevailing consensus that it cannot itself challenge.

And yet in the world view of the media, and broadcasters in particular, the handiness of being able to get the opinion of “the employers” has kept the CBI at the fore when a reaction is needed to an economic, business or trade issue.

What the CBI has said in the past, therefore, on British membership of the euro, EU employment directives, minimum wages and government business taxes is always given a great deal of credibility.

As the Scottish independence referendum approached, it would be expected at some point to give its considered view. It has now done this by registering with the Electoral Commission as a supporter of a No vote. Frankly, it could not have done anything else. For such a large institution, articulating its opinion in favour of the Better Together campaign would surely have taken it past the £10,000 threshold that requires registration, just by its own use of staff time, resources and events.

It has a large Scottish annual dinner before September that could easily be challenged by Nationalists as being a platform for pushing a No message. Its Scottish director, Iain McMillan, has been an outspoken critic of not only independence but practically every stage of devolution, not least because of the concern that devolution could lead to independence. In that latter regard, McMillan may yet be proven right.

The CBI has raised many concerns about the SNP government’s proposals, including a paper with 170 questions on independence, while McMillan has given evidence to the Scottish Parliament expressing his doubts and opposition to the idea. So the CBI has form on the issue of independence – and why not: the word British is in the heart of its old name – the Confederation of British Industry. It stands for open trade in and across the United Kingdom, so it is hardly going to suggest the UK is broken in two. If there should be any surprise about the CBI’s decision to support the No campaign, it is that it has taken so long to do so, presumably because the much-delayed SNP white paper took so long to appear and then had to be given consideration, and the views of CBI members sought, before the final decision was signed off by the CBI Scotland council.

The idea the CBI would simply stand by as a benign, interested observer is, frankly, risible. It exists to represent views and opinions and, once believing it could establish a consensus that would hold, it would announce its position.

It is at this point the process becomes opaque – which has put it at a disadvantage – but, nevertheless, the CBI is a British organisation with many members that operate throughout Britain.

Some of its Scottish members have been public in their own annual reports or through press statements that, while Scotland could, with the right policies, prosper by going it alone, there are great risks that do not outweigh the advantages of being in the UK. Under attack from Nationalists for having the temerity to take a stand, the CBI was between a rock and a hard place.

As a British institution, it naturally believed that Scotland should stay in the United Kingdom, but to say so would invite a possible legal breach, so it had to register its position. And yet this meant, by definition, that Scottish Government agencies, apolitical organisations and those (few) businesses of a different disposition would have to resign their membership.

STV, guided by public broadcasting codes on impartiality, Scottish Enterprise and VisitScotland have already done so; others will undoubtedly follow suit. Given the history of the CBI on constitutional issues, that the chairman of pro-independence group Business for Scotland has decided to resign his company, Balhousie Care Group, from CBI membership begs the question why it ever joined in the first place.

What we need to understand is the CBI does not speak for all businesses, but it does speak for a good many. To come to an informed opinion about our referendum position, the public needs to hear all different voices of business and such voices should not be bullied or demonised into staying quiet. Its decision to publicly back the only logical position it could – for a United Kingdom to continue in business together – should therefore be welcomed, not ridiculed, as we see yet more embittered division as the referendum approaches.